Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is written by white South African writer Bianca Marais. Set during apartheid, the book opens in the days leading up to the Soweto student uprising, in which black schoolchildren are attacked and killed by the police while protesting the school curriculum. After the uprising, Robin, a 9-year-old white English girl, is left orphaned and Beauty, a 40-something Xhosa woman, is stuck far from home trying to find her missing daughter, who was deeply involved in the uprising. Amidst their individual tragedies, Beauty and Robin are thrown together when Robin’s young aunt is unable (unwilling?) to give up her jetsetting lifestyle and job to raise her niece. This relationship will have some upsetting consequences for both on Beauty’s quest to find her daughter.
This novel was beautifully written and is told from Beauty and Robin’s points of view. Beauty is a very likable character and her emotions are easy to grasp from the beginning as she speaks lyrically of all that is befalling her. She has many words of wisdom, which are hard won from a hard life living in apartheid. Her quest to save her daughter shows what a strong and amazing woman she is, especially considering how dangerous her mission quickly becomes. She is also a fully rounded character. Robin is not as likable, but she is also only nine years old and trying to grasp a reality for which she has no point of reference. At the beginning, black people are merely servants to her, and her view of the racial divide is heavily influenced by her white family’s upbringing. As she gets to know Beauty, she begins to grow and learn that maybe what her parents said wasn’t really right and that maybe there is something wrong with the way her society divides the races. Her point of view was a bit harder for me to read at times, and it does weave back and forth between her child viewpoint, and the imposition of her adult thoughts throughout.
I’ll admit that before I read this novel, I knew what apartheid was, but did not realize the full extent of the policies enacted during that period of time. It was hard for me to imagine living in a modern society so cut off from the rest of the world, but I know it happened. The ugliness of this society is not lost in this book either. Many characters, main and secondary, have to deal with various setbacks due to living in South Africa, including torture and other violence. There were, however, also moments of joy and happiness and this book gave me a roller coaster of emotion.
In addition to the themes and Beauty and Robin’s viewpoints, secondary characters were also well-developed. There’s Edith, a young woman who inherits guardianship of Robin and has no clue what she is doing (and is fairly unlikable most of the time). Her friends also begin to take care of Robin, and it is through their lives that we see additional incidences of discrimination. There’s also Nomsa, Beauty’s missing daughter, whose very absence makes her a pivotal character. What we learn of her we learn mainly from others, and it paints a pivotal portrait of a young woman who Beauty fears to lose forever. There’s also Robin’s friend Morrie, a young Jewish man who lives downstairs and becomes her friend. Their childish conversations, including many misunderstandings of meanings of words, were usually very funny and interesting.
I had one drawback in this novel, and that was the ending. I can’t really explain why without giving a lot away, but I got a little lost in the last part of the book. It wasn’t as enjoyable for me, and I felt like it was wrapped up too quickly in a very haphazard way. However, while I was upset about that in the moment, it doesn’t take away from my recommendation of the book too much, considering how wonderfully written the rest of it was.
If you enjoy literary fiction about social topics, then this book is definitely for you. I appreciated the lyrical prose and character development throughout. I felt like everyone was a fully realized person, and I would love to know more about each and every character. Hum if You Don’t Know the Words is out today from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Note: I received this book from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Do you know any other well-written books (fiction or non-fiction) about apartheid or other social issues?? Feel free to leave me some recommendations in the comments!